Hank Stuever
Hank Stuever
Critic

Sundance Channel’s ‘Top of the Lake’: Out of the gloom, a chilling mystery

Parisa Taghizadeh/Sundance Channel - Thomas M. Wright, left, Elisabeth Moss and David Wenham star in “Top of the Lake,” a miniseries on Sundance Channel.

Spring has sprung and television is finally getting its act together after some serious winter blahs, with some returning favorites (“Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men”) and a couple of remarkable premieres, one of them being Monday night’s debut of Sundance Channel’s eerily beautiful and meticulously structured “Top of the Lake,” a seven-part mystery miniseries set in New Zealand.

Co-created and co-written by filmmaker Jane Campion (“The Piano”), “Top of the Lake” stars “Mad Men’s” Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin, a police detective who specializes in cases of missing and abused children. (At last, an American actor is doing a down-under accent, instead of the other way around.)

Hank Stuever

Hank Stuever is The Washington Post’s TV critic and author of two books, “Tinsel” and “Off Ramp.”

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While visiting her dying mother in Queenstown, Robin is asked to help with the case of Tui Mitcham, a 12-year-old rescued while wading, Virginia Woolf-style, into the frigid waters of Lake Wakatipu. A medical exam reveals that Tui, who lives on a compound with her menacing father and older brothers, is five months pregnant. After Robin launches an investigation into how Tui got pregnant, the girl vanishes.

Gloom settles in — and all over — this miniseries. Within the first two episodes (premiering back-to-back Monday), it’s clear that we’re in the presence of a confidently made project that moves at a deliberate and occasionally plodding pace, but not an infinite one. Though it may remind viewers a bit of AMC’s “The Killing,” “Top of the Lake” intends to contain its story to seven episodes.

Compelling though it may be, I’m not convinced that the central mystery (where is Tui?), is what most merits our admiration. “Top of the Lake” is worth watching because it is yet one more example of the way TV continues to morph into something that surpasses movies, in both innovation and format. This is basically a seven-hour film, thoroughly unmoored from conventional ideas of narrative arc and momentum (yet it succeeds on both counts). It’s filled with characters and imagery that drift by like the mist off the immense Lake Wakatipu.

The lake’s deep and dark presence — indeed, the whole jaw-dropping panorama of that part of New Zealand — lends the story its ominous and damp mood. On a grassy shore nicknamed “Paradise,” a group of women set up a sort of spiritual/therapy compound, where they live on little and sit at the feet of GJ, a grouchy and terse guru played by Holly Hunter. The women’s presence is an irritant to the local yokels, including the abusive, macho household Tui fled, and Robin zeroes in on the fact that Tui was last seen at the camp.

Here, Campion (and co-creator/writer Gerard Lee) begin to fashion a delicate and impressive braid of character, theme and setting. Moss is terrific as a young woman facing head-on the brutishness of the rural culture around her; in Hunter’s GJ (and the women who hang on her every word), we seem to have a parallel notion about the search for feminist identity. A missing, pregnant 12-year-old is what connects both stories.

But “Top of the Lake” is, at best, only subtly interested in metaphor. It’s mainly an intelligent crime drama, and a real step forward for Sundance, which is bringing more original programming to its slate. As slow as it seems to go at first, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’re addicted.

Top of the Lake

(two-hour premiere) begins Monday at 9 p.m. on Sundance Channel.

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